Aikido as an Exploration of Fear, Pain and Reaction

By Norine Longmire, Aikido Takayama

Let me be clear: until November 4, 2016, I was a person who hated flying. Specifically, lift off and landing. Not to mention, the only reason to arrive at an airport is so you can get the heck away from it. So flying to Phase II Weapons Intensive from Vancouver, BC to Oakland Airport (Alameda Aikikai) was not high on my priority list of fun activities to take up on an early Friday morning.

Plane flights transformed me from an ever pivoting agnostic, to an atheist, back to an agnostic, then miraculously into a cold-sweating quivering mass mouthing prayers to Hindu, Pagan, Jewish God/Goddesses, as well as chanting ancient yogic mantras to myself until a manageable level of serotonin was released into my bloodstream to balance out the cortisol shooting through my veins.

However, on a previous flight to the other end of the country in August, I happened to encounter a seat mate who was even more terrified than I was. She dropped an Ativan on the floor and was frantically searching for it. After finding it she immediately swallowed it – which rattled my slight germaphobic OCD. Nevertheless, I talked to her through the take off and landing to the point of calming us both. So when we lifted off at 5:05 am on November 4, I found myself reading without interruption, only feeling inconvenienced that we weren’t already there.

Group photo from the last day of the Seminar

Group photo from the last day of the Seminar

In Aikido, we are asked to back onto the mats, leaving our footwear pointing outward, leaving what is unnecessary off the mats. We are meant to train unfettered by the tethers of our daily dramas, emotional ties, and monkey minds. This was never more important than at Phase II of the weapons intensive lead by Mike Flynn, Shihan, hosted by Elmer Tancino Sensei, with Deena Drake Sensei (San Diego Aikikai), JD Sandoval Sensei (Hayward Aikikai) and Steve Thoms Sensei (Eugene Aikikai).

A quick recap of the previous years’ intensive lead into Sancho I, II and III over the 11 hours of training. But bokken was first. A recap of kiriotoshi foundation forged the basis of understanding ma-ai, “stickiness” and connectedness in the six kumitachi. With the expectation that advanced students knew the forms, foundational concepts like precise footwork, concise sincere attacks and demonstration of the fluidity of ma-ai (contraction and expansion) were covered.

We needed to use all of our senses to be aware of our environment, our neighbours and our partners. If you’ve been training in Aikido weapons, you know you are going to be hit at some point in your training. In some ways the difference in training in Aikido and other martial arts is that we practice NOT to be hit, whereas in others we are training to be comfortable being struck repeatedly. So what happens when we do get hit by a weapon?

To the novice practitioner (and maybe to the not so novice) when you hit your training partner: practice can stop with, “Oh! I’m sorry!” or training can continue without outside acknowledgment from either partner. We likely all have been the recipient of the regret of hurting a partner or on the wrong end of the admonishment from a senior for not being responsive – “Take UKEMI!”

So what about being hit? In Aikido we do not have the constant batter of sparring – conditioning our bodies and minds to accepting being struck. So when we are hit with a bokken or jyo we might be surprised by our response. This is especially true when you don’t see it coming. A dojo full of flying jyos can lead to just that – a jyo coming from behind because of a kesa meant for someone else.

In his book, “Meditations on Violence”, Rory Miller goes into detail on the effects of adrenaline and states of consciousness in a fight or after receiving a blow to the body. The ability to remain totally and completely present is completely misrepresented in action movies (as if we all didn’t already know that!).

When we are taken by surprise or hit hard enough, a myriad of reactions take place in the body and mind. Adrenalin shoots through our veins, our fight or flight mechanism kicks in. But we might also notice that we can have strong emotional responses: explosive anger; disabling grief; regret, guilt (I did something wrong); shame (I am wrong) – reactions that seem overblown to the actual situation. These biological reactions well up to the surface unwelcome, often leaving us embarrassed and unsure of ourselves.

Aikido practice can offer fertile ground for exploring our deepest, hidden, habitual emotional reactions. A respected teacher told me that we can train ourselves to recognize these reactions, “get under them” without shutting them down, remain present and continue to train. It takes self reflection, presence of mind in the moment, and as ever, training.

I fell down the stairs a week after the incident: rushing, arms full, and landed hard on the edge of a step…the same emotional response started to well up as when I was hit from behind. Hmmm. “get under it.” What is this? Why is this reaction rising up again? I paused, remained still, silent, felt it. In that moment I could discover where it came from, and with the words of Frank Herbert’s Litany Against Fear, “I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Our teachers tell us that understanding Aikido is a lifetime practice. The techniques, the art, the training. Maybe Aikido is also the lifetime practice of understanding ourselves.

An Aikido Experience of Friendship

Attendees of the Friendship Seminar

Attendees of the Friendship Seminar

Aikido Institute of San Francisco Friendship Seminar 2016
By Leo Baca Aikido Institue of San Francisco

The seminar spanned two warm days in San Francisco but students remained focused and training was vigorous.  Students and instructors were as diverse as the city itself – children and adults,  beginners and Yudansha, local and from afar.  

Training focused on movement, distance and space with instructors paying particular attention to the opening.  Diagana Sensei,  McSpadden Sensei and  Schenk Sensei all share a common lineage and it was evident in their instruction.  At times it felt as if you were being taught not by a single instructor, but by a team of instructors with each Sensei building off of the teachings of the other, and Nomura Shihan’s ever watchful eye ensuring that no details went unnoticed.  Emphasis was placed on the opening movement.  Once the opening was correct and the Uke unbalanced, we moved to the entry, taking the Uke’s center, controlling space and so on.  Students were reminded to recognize and utilize space, to move with the entire body and not waste movement.  Our small mat space was utilized to its fullest, yet did not seem crowded.  All three Sensei circulated and weaved through the dojo and trained with all Aikidoka.

Schenk Sensei displaying a solid suwariwaza foundation

Schenk Sensei displaying a solid suwariwaza foundation

The Seminar’s theme of friendship was appropriate as participants gathered from San Francisco, Sacramento, Seattle, Brooklyn and Singapore.  It serves as a reminder of why seminars are important.  Seminars bring people together to train and create or strengthen bonds.  When the day is done, we share a common respect and part ways knowing we will see each other again.

New Seminar; New experiences
by Iris, Grass Valley Aikikai, 11 years old

Uke: Iris of Grass Valley Aikikai. Nage: Scott McSpadden Sensei. Watching waza: Liam from Grass Valley Aikikai.

Uke: Iris of Grass Valley Aikikai. Nage: Scott McSpadden Sensei.
Watching waza: Liam from Grass Valley Aikikai.

When I left for this seminar, I had never been to San Francisco. I had never been to a seminar not hosted by my dojo, and I had never been to a body arts seminar. I was so excited; in fact, I was absolutely thrilled to be going. I was nervous about the new space and new people, but everyone was so kind and helpful that I immediately felt comfortable. I feel I learned many new things, and new ways to do techniques and new ways to view Aikido as a whole. I left with new openness to learning. I remember when we first spotted the Golden Gate Bridge rising through the mist, with the island prison of Alcatraz in front. It looked like something from a postcard or a fairytale. Afterwards we went for sushi and discussed what we had learned. The entire experience is one I will remember for a long time.

Friendship Seminar Experience
By Laim McCarthy, Grass Valley Aikikai

Liam at his home dojo

Liam at his home dojo

My name is Liam McCarthy, I am a 15 year-old student at Grass Valley Aikikai, and an attendee of the seminar hosted on September 17th, at Aikido Institute of San Francisco.
I thoroughly enjoyed this seminar. Everyone I trained with was friendly, patient, and knowledgeable. It was my third seminar, and only my second outside of my dojo. Although the space at first seemed small, the mat had plenty of space for all in attendance. The advice, tips, and help I got were extremely useful, especially when the technique was being demonstrated slightly differently than my dojo’s style. One thing I specifically liked a lot was the form in which one Nage was performing the technique and the other students in that group attacked as Ukes in a line. Although it put pressure on the Nage, as the line moved quickly, it allowed them to try many times over with all different heights, ages, and body types.
As for each of the three Sensei who taught classes, I thought all three were pleasant and patient, and I enjoyed each of their styles. Schenk Sensei demonstrated everything carefully and accurately, and explained all the techniques he taught very thoroughly. I enjoyed his class and my time spent trying to soak in every detail of what he demonstrated. I thought the same of Scott McSpadden Sensei; he seemed very focused, yet good-natured, and had no problem patiently showing things to you if you felt overwhelmed or misunderstood something. Lastly, Diagana Sensei taught his class, the third and final class of the day. I noticed a very strong presence and focus in his practice, and thought he was a great teacher. He was easy going, and spared time for any student who was confused (as did all the Sensei teaching a class).
Aside from the three Sensei who taught their own classes, the students of this dojo were extremely well-mannered and knowledgeable. Nobody seemed frustrated when I didn’t get something right; they had no problem with me taking all the time I needed to fix anything I was having trouble with; and they showed a great deal of patience with me whenever I had trouble. I tried my best to keep up with everyone with my ukemi, and each partner I had went as fast or as slow as they thought I could handle or needed. All in all, this was a fantastic experience for a seminar, and I really enjoyed myself.

Seminar Experience
by Wyatt, Grass Valley Aikikai, 10 years old

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Before we got there, I was nervous. But once we got there, my strength returned. It was fun learning all the different training styles of all the different dojos! I learned many new techniques too, like ryokatadori shihonage. My favorite part of the experience was learning the different teaching styles of the different Sensei.

Aikido with Old Friends
By Vince Chan Aikido Institue of San Francisco

Pleasure is defined as a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment. Aikido is pleasurable as it involves centering the mind and body in the most intense way possible, with love, in the company of friends and other Aikidoka, striving to better not just ourselves, but the communities where we live by practicing the teachings of Aikido in our daily lives. It is always a pleasure to train with the trio of Schenk Sensei, Diagana Sensei and McSpadden Sensei as they all bring a joyful awareness to their otherwise sharp Aikido. Together, these three epitomize the freedom to play with techniques through the connection between partners. Words fail to frame the experience.

Diagana Sensei

Diagana Sensei

Like rough ashlar*, continuously being improved by practice and work, we can attain the smoothness of perfect geometry in our aikido by having a child’s mind: to absorb as much as we can from our teachers and Sempai. When I watch and listen to McSpadden Sensei, Diagana Sensei and Schenk Sensei, I can feel their happiness in their art. They all want to practice with love for each person on the mat, happy but sharp. With a child’s mind, they enter each encounter willing to learn but astutely aware of each movement. I was very happy to be a part of this seminar for the experience of seeing and feeling the openness of each technique presented by these teachers.

*finely dressed stone block work

Living Collaboratively

By James Sawers Fox Valley Aikikai

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I want to touch
The rings of Saturn
I want to float
Through interstellar stardust
Another choice was a recent weekend
Celebrating ten years
Of living collaboratively
With teachers, students,
And community – Aikidoists
Training with heart and intent
Successfully testing to limits
Nages and ukes leaving
Little on the mat
A large cricket attacking guests
With doleful looks and demands
For lots of belly-rubs
An anniversary, birthday, testing
Promotions, grand weather
All great reasons to share
A mutual gathering of like minds
Two wooden posts – a hard reminder
That ten-directional eyes
Is more than just a weird saying!
A visiting west coast master
Such were all the ingredients
For another great seminar
At Kyoseikan Dojo
Where tradition meets community

Living Collaboratively

By James Sawers Fox Valley Aikikai

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I want to touch
The rings of Saturn
I want to float
Through interstellar stardust
Another choice was a recent weekend
Celebrating ten tears
Of living collaboratively
With teachers, students,
And community – Aikidoist
Training with heart and intent
Successfully testing to limits
Nages and uses leaving
Little on the mat
A large cricket attacking guests
With doleful looks and demands
For lots of belly-rubs
An anniversary, birthday, testing
Promotions, grand weather
All great reasons to share
A mutual gathering of like minds
Two wooden posts – a hard reminder
That ten-directional eyes
Is more than just a weird saying!
A visiting west coast master
Such were all the ingredients
For another great seminar
At Kyoseikan Dojo
Where tradition meets community

Dealing with Conflict

By Greg Urbina Aikido of Albuquerque

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During the first class at AOA’s fall seminar held on October 2016 with Alex Peterson Sensei, Philip Sensei calls me up for ukemi. He gives me the opening and I attack. I’m on the floor, Sensei has me down: only he decides when I can get up. I feel pressure in my arm release, so I get up as fast as I can. It’s Sankyo, Sensei turns, I do everything I can to keep up with him, a pain shoots through my arm. One slip, if I miss one beat, if I put my guard down for one moment, I’ll be spending the next few months sitting seiza, watching class with my arm in a cast. I’m on the floor again, all my bones still intact. Sensei let’s go of my arm, I need to get back up, Omote is over and it’s time for Ura. Then three more sets of this. I need to get back up. During this seminar Alex Peterson Sensei said “if you want to be forged you need to go to the hottest part of the fire”. After hearing this I reflected on my own  personal progression of dealing with conflict.
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I’ve been practicing Aikido for four years now. About three years ago I was a fourth kyu in the Soto Deshi program. I was working as a supervisor at a grocery store making just enough money to get by. I wanted to go to school but I didn’t have the money or the time. The whole reason I originally joined Aikido was to prepare to become a police officer and I needed some college credits to qualify for the academy. I didn’t want to quit Aikido, I loved it, but I needed to work, and I also needed to go to school. I kept thinking about how I could manage doing all three, but things wouldn’t fit. I needed more time and money to go to school. I could not afford to pay for everything if I cut my hours at work. If I cut my hours at the dojo how much would my training suffer? Eventually I was so frustrated I couldn’t even focus on training. I ended up failing my third kyu test and eventually my Sensei’s recommended that I take a break from the Soto Deshi program and focus on work, paying bills, and going to school. I was told the Soto Deshi program will not be going anywhere.
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I was now able to spend  more time focusing on work and eventually I became a manager, not easy. I would work on homework late after I got off work. Some days I would sleep for a few hours and try to make the 6 A.M. morning Aikido class, then go to school. My hours at the dojo went up and down, and my training did suffer. I did not make the best grades and I gained about about 40 pounds and took on some debt, but at the end of summer 2016 I got the credits I needed. I stepped down from work and joined the Uchi Deshi program at second kyu.
I could have quit Aikido many times and found some cheap excuse to save face, but I would be a lesser person because of it. Every time I take a class, I have some kind of obstacle to overcome. You can call it conflict, you can call it fire, you can call it yourself, but to get through it you need patience and dedication.  I still don’t know how to take proper ukemi for Sankyo but I’m getting on the mat tonight.
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British Birankai Celebration


By Liese Klein, New Haven Aikikai
Lots of old friends and many new ones made my recent visit to England after more than a decade quite memorable. The British Birankai Autumn Course in Birmingham was my reason for the trip, a special celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Chiba Sensei’s arrival in the U.K. that brought Mrs. Chiba together with many Birankai veterans.

Mrs. Chiba and Eric Beake of London Aikikai at the special memorial dinner in Birmingham, Oct. 8, 2016.

Mrs. Chiba and Eric Beake of London Aikikai at the special memorial dinner in Birmingham, Oct. 8, 2016.

At a special dinner on Oct. 8, Mrs. Chiba offered heartfelt thanks to the many British Aikido students who helped her and Chiba Sensei make a life in London – and continued to keep the flame of his Aikido alive after their return to Japan in 1976. It was an emotional reunion with British Birankai stalwarts like Dee Chen, Steve Beecham, Tony Cassells, Joe Curran, Chris Mooney and Eric Beake.

Many of these veterans also told me lots of great stories as part of my research into Chiba Sensei’s time in England for the biography project. I traveled across the island in my quest to find out more about Chiba Sensei’s challenges as young man trying to bring the art of Aikido to often unappreciative audiences. I was struck time and again by the strong impression he made on so many and of the intense loyalty of his British students extending into the present day.

My most joyful discoveries came on the mat, as I got reacquainted with the dynamic, clean and powerful Aikido of our British brethren. (See more videos of some of the instructors at the BiranOnline channel on Youtube.)

Along with vibrant veterans, it was amazing to see future leaders like Davinder Bath and Ian Grubb come into their own on and off the mat. It was also great to see the enthusiastic and diverse new crop of students who are keeping up the very high standards of British Birankai Aikido. I was impressed and humbled.

Mrs. Chiba, Miguel Moreno and Liese Klein at the Birmingham Course.

Mrs. Chiba, Miguel Moreno and Liese Klein at the Birmingham Course.

Also inspiring was the strong training of Birankai Europe teachers who taught at the seminar: Amnon Tzechovoy of the Dojo in Tel Aviv University Sports Centre, Israel; Alexander Broll of Aikido Dojo Gen Ei Kan in Landau, Germany; and Miguel Moreno, formerly of San Diego Aikikai, now of Venice, Italy. (No, Miguel doesn’t take a gondola to his new dojo!)
Somewhat disappointing was the absence of some familiar faces due to a split within the British ranks a few years back – a warning to us in Birankai North America. Egos and personality conflicts have always been with us, but sincere, strong training will prevail, no matter the setting.
One constant at all the dojos I visited in England was sliding mats – most dojos can’t afford a full-time space due to high rents and put mats down before class with no anchoring. At the seminar, the mats on the edges of the temporary dojo would slide apart with every few rolls.
But every time the gaps between mats threatened to swallow up toes or fingers, a few hearty souls would pause and push them back together. After a while I stopped even noticing and got into the spirit of things – slide apart, push together.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Setting up the mat before the Birmingham seminar.

Setting up the mat before the Birmingham seminar.

Reflection on Aikido of Albuquerque’s Regional Seminar

By Hugh Fritz Aikido of Albuquerque

The seminar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the beginning of October, 2016 was the second seminar that I have attended. I am still new to the practice of Aikido, and deciding to attend classes was a test of nerves. I do not have the physical characteristics of a professional fighter, and am not the kind of person anyone would assume has an interest in Martial Arts. A major reason I have been willing to regularly train at the Aikido of Albuquerque dojo, is the welcoming atmosphere for students who are new to Aikido specifically, or fighting styles in general. This same concept carried over to the fall seminar, which made the event enjoyable.

Jyo Training

Jyo Training


Discovering the Junior Kenshusei programs at the Aikido of Albuquerque dojo provided me with a boost of confidence. Observing a broad range of ages and sizes among the students and attendees of seminars enforced the feeling further. I’ve heard that techniques that can be used against any opponent, but I never really believed it until I witnessed teens in high school or younger children performing ikkyo on an adult twice their size or larger. It is a hard truth that age slows everyone down, but people at seminars old enough to be my grandparents seem to be entirely capable of taking ukemi just as well as the younger attendants.
While the variety of people at the seminars was inspiring, I also found that it brought a sense of urgency. I’m aware that I won’t be able to keep up with someone who has been training for years, but at the same time practicing techniques with advanced students brought the desire to try to prove that I was making progress. Also, the days passed quickly and assigned techniques changed rapidly. Knowing that people at the seminar had traveled from out of town, and likely from out of state, created the urge to make the trip worth their while. The feeling caused me to move too quickly during training, which also made me sloppy. As the days went on the people seemed to realize that I was moving too fast for my own good and made it clear that they were willing to go slow when working with me. In addition to the attendant’s willingness to take their time training, the Sensei took a few moments intermittently throughout the day to review the basic concepts that were being emphasized to keep everyone on track throughout the seminar weekend.
Immersed in Tachi waza Te-waza during the fun.

Immersed in Tachi waza Te-waza during the fun.


Overall it was the welcoming environment that made the seminar enjoyable. The feeling in the dojo was not exactly relaxed; there was definitely a sense of seriousness and commitment to the training and conditioning and everyone was pushed physically. However, there was also the sense of respect and understanding for individuals without an intense background or years of experience. That balance resulted in a supportive learning environment and an overall worthwhile experience. If that same concept continues to other locations then I am entirely willing to attend another seminar.

Aikido Back Home

By Isiah Fernandez, Hayward Aikido

As the old adage says “There’s no place like home”. So when I had an oppurtunity to go back home to the Philippines, specifically Manila, I took it. It was my sister’s wedding, but I also wanted to get some Aikido training in. I started Aikido training in 2008 at Hayward Aikido under JD Sandoval Sensei. I was also his Kenshusei beginning in 2010 and graduated from the program in 2013, after passing the Fukushidoin test.
The first thing I did was find a dojo that was close by, because as everybody that has ever been to Manila, knows how horrendous the traffic conditions are there. I found Ateneo Aikido Club, which was inside the Ateneo University of Manila, one of the more prestigous universities in the whole Philippines. I had already emailed them beforehand of my intention to join class. The head instructor of the dojo is Rommel Miel, a 4th dan blackbelt of the Aikikai. They gave me permission to do so.
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The dojo itself is located inside the gymnasium. I came a little earlier to meet the teacher and the students. Some differences from training back in the States are that we had to set up the mats because other arts and sports were using it during the day. Also they have 2 hour classes which was a challenge due to the very hot and humid climate in Manila. The instructors themselves also do not get paid for their services, which in my opinion, is very noble and sincere in a 3rd world country, that people still do things just for the love of it.
The practice was great. Very good energy was shown on the mat. After the class the head instructor asked me if I could lead class the following week. I happily obliged and the next week I did. Teaching and training in Aikido in Manila is very special to me, having grown up here and being given the chance to show the art that I have dedicated my life to. The focus of my class was to present Aikido as a true and complete martial art.
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Sometimes we as Aikidoka focus on the philosophical aspects of the art, that the martial aspect of it becomes secondary. I wanted to highlight the martial side of it. We finished class and I spoke about how we should all take pride that we do Aikido because it has everything, and will work on any situation or circumstance. I wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t.
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After class we went out for pizza and beer at a local pizza parlor (Shakey’s! Love that place!). All in all I really enjoyed training and teaching in the homeland. I would like to thank Miel Sensei and all the members of Ateneo Aikido Club for having me and making me feel like family. Thank you very much.

Isaiah

Summer’s Last Stand – A Weekend of “Firsts”

By Jan Arkless North County Aikikai

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On August 26, Summit Aikikai hosted their inaugural Late Summer Seminar with guest instructors Ed Hernandez, 3rd dan, and Todd Fessenden, 3rd dan. Keeping with a weekend of firsts, it was Ed and Todd’s first seminar. The president of Birankai North America, Alex Peterson, 6th dan, Chief Instructor of Summit Aikikai, lead the charge of the directive sent from the teacher’s council, to get more young teachers out into the larger community, sharing their wealth of knowledge. Answering the call to Park City were aikidoka from Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, California, Wyoming and Oregon. With a mix of out-the-box beginners to a Shihan, it seemed everyone checked their ego at the door and donned the cloak of sincerity.
The event kicked off Friday with Hernadez Sensei humbly proclaiming that this was his “first gig,” then joyfully shook off our travel weariness by leading us through a number of high energy techniques. Spirit was high, smiles were abundant, sweat was profuse. A number of us sea-level folk wilted minutes into the class due to the altitude, but determiningly persevered. Is there no oxygen in Park City?

Ed Hernandea and Scott Swank , Ed and Michael Cevasco, Ed and David Friend

Ed Hernandea and Scott Swank , Ed and Michael Cevasco, Ed and David Friend

Friday evening, Peterson Sensei, along with ever-smiling Elizabeth Goward from Eugene Aikiakai, had arranged a rambling walk through the heart of Party City (not a typo) to a pub called the Wasatch Brewery. We all got to know each other with libations such as “Polygamy Porter,” and “Last One In Lager.” 
Saturday morning brought Fessenden Sensei into the mix with his precision-sharp weapons. Using the 8-count suburi in partner practice, he drew us into his personal exploration of the hip turn ending and the extension which necessitates it.
Todd Fessenden, Todd and Jan Arkless, Todd illustrating hip turn

Todd Fessenden, Todd and Jan Arkless, Todd illustrating hip turn


The afternoon practice started off with an introduction to the Russian martial art, Systema, by Mark Zamarin. With a focus on breathing, relaxation, and development of intuition/sixth-sense, and using the opponent’s energy against him, it was easy to see Systema’s relationship to the deeper levels of aikido. 
After all that relaxation, Hernandez Sensei, used yokomen attacks to keep us responsive and connected. Fessenden Sensei followed up with the 12 kesa jyo basics, again with an emphasis on hip turn and getting off the line. 
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The perfect ending to such a day was a picnic and frigid dip in Rockport Reservoir Lake. We perched like mountain goats on the side of a rocky bluff watching the watersports and our friends swimming. As the sun went down and we bundled up, Elizabeth entertained us with guitar and folk songs. 
Enjoying the evening BBQ, Elizabeth Goward about to take the plunge, Alex Peterson and Suzanne-Gonzales-Webb, Cindy Moore Paddleboarding

Enjoying the evening BBQ, Elizabeth Goward about to take the plunge, Alex Peterson and Suzanne-Gonzales-Webb, Cindy Moore Paddleboarding


After Sunday’s classes, Dennis Belt Shihan presented Alex Sensei with the Biran Bowl, the “gift from heaven” that inspired Chiba Sensei to name our organization Birankai. It was a humbling moment to see this exchange. I know this symbol is in good hands, in a dojo with a Chief Instructor who keeps the legacy of Chiba Sensei’s aikido protected and alive.
Pat and Dennis belt presenting the Biran Bowl to Alex Peterson

Pat and Dennis belt presenting the Biran Bowl to Alex Peterson


Biran Bowl

Biran Bowl

After the seminar, our generous host, Alex Sensei took us to one of his favorite rock climbing places where he introduced us to top-roping. It was my first experience rock climbing and to say I was filled with trepidation is an understatement. However, safe in my harness and with Alex’s brother-in-law, David Friend, on belay, I felt secure and made it as high as my weary muscles would allow. Much higher than the climbing gym! As my experienced climber fiancé says, “Be scared…. and do it anyway.” Cindy Moore also took on the challenge, calmly climbing until called down so that we could catch our flight.
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I feel honored to have experienced Todd and Ed’s first seminar. Their commitment and sincerity left me inspired and determined to forge on.   Alex Peterson is a thoughtful and generous host. Walking into his dojo is a cross between walking into a church and your own living room, equally deferential and welcoming. With a dojo named “Summit,” you are expected to reach great heights. Under his guidance it is certainly attainable. I would encourage all to give his next seminar a try. You never know what adventure he will entice you into. 
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Mountain Weapons Seminar: Training in Nature’s Elements to Become Annual Event

By Cecilia Ramos Sensei, Grass Valley Aikikai

Our Grass Valley Aikikai Mountain Weapons Seminar with Elmer Tancinco Sensei, on July 23rd has come and gone. Resting afterwards and reflecting back on the experience, my mind is flooded with images and emotions. As the host I should show humble modesty, but it was a grand seminar!

Jyo training with my student Kirk at our dojo in Grass Valley, Ca

Jyo training with my student Kirk at our dojo in Grass Valley, Ca


I bought my home on 10 acres in the Sierra Nevadas in 2004, and from that time until now I have dreamed of having an outdoor weapons seminar. At long last the stars have aligned and it has come to pass! It was an experiment, I didn’t know if it would work out. I worried people would find it too hot, too dirty, too buggy, or too far to drive. I was prepared to have it be just a handful of my own students and Tancinco Sensei. Instead we had 36 people training, plus 9 more friends and family joined us for dinner. Judging by everyone’s faces and comments as they trained and then partied, and by all the Facebook posts afterward, the experiment was a success! Obviously, we will have to do it again! In retrospect we will have to rename this seminar the First Annual Mountain Weapons Seminar!
Kamiza in the woods

Kamiza in the woods


We had students come from Alameda Aikikai, Hayward Aikikai, Eastshore Aikikai, Aikido Institute of San Francisco, Davis Aikikai, plus Daniel Acosta Sensei from Mexico and Brian Batchley, formerly from Ventura Aikikai and now at-large in Paradise, California. Lizzy Lynn Shihan, my dear friend, came too and lent her support. I was dumbfounded when sneaky Alex Peterson Sensei and his sidekick Karen Kalliel Sensei showed up unannounced to surprise me, having conspired with my students at summer camp. What a wonderful surprise it was!
A nice smile from Tancico Sensei

A nice smile from Tancico Sensei


There was an element of stress for our family in preparing because we had decided to repair our pond. The pond was there when I bought the house. Originally it was a spring fed creek. A former owner dug it into a pond but didn’t do it right. It was pretty from a distance, but up close it was a mess, and it leaked. The project originally had nothing to do with the seminar, but the seminar date had already been set when we realized that we were in a position to finally rebuild the pond. Fred (my sweetheart and the cook) determined that it could get done before the seminar, rather than waiting until after. Naturally the project expanded and we kept adding things, like the Fred Flintstone outdoor kitchen, the terrace, the beach, and the wood chips! As the seminar date approached, we stayed calm, on course, and yet I am amazed that it came together in time. Many thanks to Fred’s son Forest (also the cook) and to my student, Kyle Comte, who labored like convicts in the hot sun moving rocks, and of course to Fred himself who was the chief architect and laborer! We have learned some lessons and it will continue to evolve. Obviously there will have to be an outdoor foot shower, after everyone was gone the house was full of sand!

The aspect of the seminar that had to do with the training itself was Tancinco Sensei’s department. Of course, I knew he would do a great job, that’s why I invited him, but in my opinion, he seemed to rise to a new level. His teaching was so clear, so martial, funny at times, and kind. I could see every student pulled forward in their practice. With first the bokken and later the jyo, he started with basics, then took everyone into deeper forms. JD Sandoval Sensei graciously served on the uke side, and between the two of them, it was something to witness. Here in Northern California we are very lucky to have instructors of such caliber.

Tancico and Sandoval Sensei demonstrating ni no tach

Tancico and Sandoval Sensei demonstrating ni no tach

After the last class people swam in the pond, and dined outside. Later, those who could stay late sat up by a campfire. Tancico Sensei slept in a tent by the pond and Acosta Sensei slept under the stars. The next day he told me he had been a little cold, but said he had adjusted the blankets and was OK. That was when I realized I had forgotten to give him a sleeping bag! The two (very thin) blankets that he used, were to have protected the bottom of the tent (that he didn’t use). He is a pretty tough guy to sleep out like that. Sandoval Sensei, Bernadette, their two girls, and little dog took the attic. Lizzy Lynn Shihan was in the living room. Antonio and Joshua were outside in their RV. So it was a darn full house! Just what I like – having a lot of aikido people all together. It was like summer camp for 24 hours at my home – heavenly.

Peterson Sensei and Carol enjoying the pond!

Peterson Sensei and Carol enjoying the pond!

A wholehearted thank you to everyone who came. You made a dream come true for me, and now I can look forward to sharing the mountains with all of you for the rest of my life. Next year I hope even more Birankai students can come and continue our martial development, exploring our weapons curriculum, fighting the mountain. Work like this, through each of us, will make Birankai strong.

A great group photo to end the training

A great group photo to end the training

Summer Camp 2016 Ushers in New Role

By Sarah Cuevas, Grass Valley Aikikai

Touching down in NYC after a red-eye from Reno, Nev., my Sensei, Cecilia Ramos, my fellow student Marci Martinez and myself, excitedly made our way to the beautiful grounds of St. John’s University.IMG_6832
After a short drive through Queens, admiring the sloped roofs designed for heavy snows of East Coast winters, the unfamiliar neighborhoods and the trees vastly different from those of my native California, we were dropped on campus with hours to spare before the first evening class. After a quick trip to the dojo to check out the mat setup, a short walk around campus, and registering among the first at camp (thank you, red-eye), we arranged ourselves in our quarters and got ready for the first class.20160614_084831

My excitement and nervousness shared equal parts of my mental configuration.  I have just taken on a new position for Birankai: editing this online newsletter.  I knew coming to camp would serve as the springboard for this new position.  I also knew I had big shoes to fill, as the retiring editor Liese Klein has held this position for the past 15 years.  She has nurtured it through its adolescence, and created the profound resource it has become today for our Aikido community.  Given the new position and the shoes to fill, I knew the heat would be on to meet any expectations that come with the job.

Having been to camp only once before, ten years prior, I decide to leave any of my own expectations of what was to come back home.  What I did expect, however was nothing less than good, hard, solid training. This expectation was met with the first class taught by Patti Lyons Sensei.  My training partners had no issue throwing me around the mat, letting me know exactly what I was doing wrong, and having benevolent patience with my mistakes.  A gift indeed, as this is a recipe for growth through training.

Before Summer Camp during my Sankyu test.

Before Summer Camp during my Sankyu test.

As camp went on, I was challenged by every class.  Each teacher provided a variety of techniques with a focus on the theme of “connectedness.”  From tai no henko to iriminage to kokyuhos and kokyunages, we were guided in the form, details, and execution of each technique.  I’ve never felt so much like a rag doll in my life!  Each class was a download of information, a challenge for my body/brain connection, and a training of my ego (“Oh, I know this one! I can do this no problem”, only to realize that subtle variations make huge differences when it comes to doing exactly what was shown by the teacher).  With each teacher having a unique set of talents, personality and teaching style, I appreciated the individuality of each class.  You never know what to expect when you step on that mat, so relinquishing expectations was a great idea.

By the end of the second day, I was formally indoctrinated into sweat, aches and pains.  I think the only time I wasn’t sweating, was walking to and eating in the cafeteria.  I had brought a bottle of analgesic oil for the aches and a tube of arnica for the bruises, using both each day to alleviate what I could.  If you’ve ever been to camp, you are surely familiar with the heavy, achy and sore muscle groups: nearly every muscle and tendon communicated the need for self-massage, stretch or rest.  Indeed, each received some form of the three, and bowing in to every class I wondered how I would survive! Ironically, as soon as I started to move on the mat, my body forgot about the pain, seemed to not remember the aches and bruises, and carried me through the whole class, only to reveal its presence again at the end of class!  This was an interesting experience for me, because after each day I felt like I had been hit with a truck.  The following day, I would bow in, turn on the brain, and let the body just follow along.

Bokken impressions over the Birankai Summer Camp tote.

Bokken impressions over the Birankai Summer Camp tote.

The rest of the week followed this same pattern, wake, stretch, pain, then train.  In between classes I had duties related to my new position, and was often being introduced to the key players who would help me in adapting to my new role.  I was first introduced to the members of the Birankai Board of Directors during one of their formal meetings at lunch.  After one class, Champion Sensei walked me around to introduce me to a few Sensei he thought I should know. I was introduced to the members of the Teachers’ Council during another lunch, allowing me to get an inside scoop of what happens behind the closed doors of our organization.

Each evening was as unique as the classes.  The week began with the mixer, full with music from talented fellow Aikidoists, a catered function with treats and sweets.  The following night was a free night in the city exploring Central Park and Times Square.  There was a memorial class for Chiba Sensei taught by Lynn Sensei, and the final evening of the farewell party was full of good food, short skits, a time of honoring each other for all the hard work, shared stories from students of their teachers, the annual fundraising raffle, and, of course, music and dancing.  Everyone attending seemed to laugh and enjoy themselves while making fond memories for the future.

View of New York City from St. John's University

View of New York City from St. John’s University

The final day remained true to form with training, good people and many goodbyes.  In the morning, we spent some time on the now mat-less gym floor in a class led by Stier Sensei, performing Tachiwaza exercises.  After eating a final breakfast in the cafeteria, we walked back to our dorms ready to pack up and head home.

Summer camp was a blend of excitement, bodily commitment, mental perseverance, strength and an open heart.  With any training, it is important to honor all aspects of what has been taught, and what was learned.  I feel blessed to have the experience of getting to train with so many dedicated Aikidoists.  I took home new technique, and a fresh, revived attitude toward training.  I know I am not alone in this.

I would like to thank Savoca Sensei and Brooklyn Aikikai for all of their hard work in organizing camp this year. Summer camp would not have been possible without the dedication and efforts of the many hands involved with making this such a success.  There were many behind-the-scenes responsibilities that made for the fluid and accomplished success of this year’s camp.  As always, a huge gratitude is owed to the core teachers, our respected Shihan and all the instructors who brought their teaching to us during classes.  Thank you to all, you have blessed our community with the gift of opportunity, training and fellowship.

Camp Highlights

Most of us are back home – the bruises are fading and the gis have been washed. Time to reflect on Birankai Aikido 2016 Summer Camp, which ended with a lively session of tai no henko led by Dave Stier Shihan of Green River Aikido on Tuesday morning.

Stier Sensei was the topic of some truly moving testimonies at the farewell party the night before, when his students told of his dedication to helping those of all abilities and body types master Aikido.

“I just wanted to be a student,” Stier Sensei said, describing the trajectory of his training after the sudden death of his teacher, Paul Sylvain Shihan. Stier Sensei went on to lead an impressive closing class to 2016 Birankai Summer Camp.

Another longtime student, Frank Apodaca Sensei of Deep River Aikikai in North Carolina, was recognized earlier during camp: Birankai has recommended that he be promoted to shihan rank.

Apodaca Sensei was a long-suffering kenshusei when I arrived in San Diego, a veteran of the legendary “Pressure Cooker” and “Suffering Bastards” eras.  His ukemi was death-defying to this newbie, especially when he would get up seemingly in one piece after Chiba Sensei demonstrated ushiro ryotedori sutemi waza, also known as “the roadkill technique.” (Chiba Sensei would rear back and flatten him like a bug.)

By the time I got there in the mid-1990s, Apodaca Sensei was a stern taskmaster in morning class and an even more stern leader of sesshin and other events at San Diego Aikikai, a link to a harsher past. Time spent as dojo-cho in Portland, Oregon, and Lansing, Michigan, seemed to mellow him out, and by the time Apodaca Sensei established Deep River Aikikai he was a supportive and open-hearted teacher.

For me, the best thing about 2016 Birankai Summer Camp was gaining new appreciation for these two men, working often without recognition in recent years to transmit Chiba Sensei’s (and Sylvain Sensei’s) Aikido.

With teachers like these in our ranks, Birankai is in safe hands.

Liese Klein

(More new video of 2016 Birankai Aikido Summer Camp at the BiranOnline channel on YouTube.)

Closing Time

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It’s that bittersweet moment at every Birankai Aikido Summer Camp when we roll up the mats, pack up most of our stuff and get ready for the farewell party. One more class tomorrow then we fly, drive, ride the subway or otherwise make our way home.

It’s been a very positive event, with record numbers on the mat for an East Coast Birankai summer camp, positive financials and strong training with no serious injuries so far. We were joined by Birankai members from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and welcomed visitors from countries including Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Canada.

Special guest and excellent Birankai friend Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan of New York Aikikai led a dynamic and enjoyable class on Saturday. Our Birankai shihan and shidoin collaborated to create a thematic curriculum for the rest of camp with a focus on connection and centeredness. Now for the raffle, our ultimate test of stamina and concentration. See you all at the party!

Liese Klein

Views of Camp

Kings of Queens

Birankai North America Summer Camp is here! Amazing weather, a beautiful campus and dynamic training here at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. Day One got camp off to a great start with Patti Lyons Sensei of Bucks County Aikido leading an action-packed class. Good thing the dojo is air-conditioned…

Make sure to check the BiranOnline channel on Youtube for new videos as camp continues.

A reminder to Birankai members at camp to pick up their new copies of Biran, our organization’s print newsletter. This summer’s issue features, among other great articles:

  • Archie Champion Sensei on ukemi
  • George Lyons Sensei on testing
  • Yoko Okamoto Sensei on the three teachers who shaped her Aikido
  • Liese Klein Sensei on our connection to Hombu Dojo in Tokyo
  • Sarah Kaylor on the meaning behind the indigo-blue color of our hakamas
  • An update on the Chiba Sensei biography project
  • Info on the upcoming Instructors’ Intensive in the Midwest
  • A report on the Paul Sylvain Sensei 20th Anniversary memorial seminar

Pick up your dojo’s copies here at camp and appreciate anew the writing skill and thoughtfulness of our Birankai community. We can throw down and write poetry, too!

Going Forward

Katherine Heins Sensei practices tea ceremony at Fire Horse Aikido on June 5, 2016.

Katherine Heins Sensei practices tea ceremony at Fire Horse Aikido on June 5, 2016.

Looking ahead to summer camp after a year of mourning, there’s a lot to be hopeful about in Birankai North America. What makes me particularly optimistic is the impressive crop of junior instructors coming into their own, both leading dojos, supporting senior teachers and giving seminars.

Philip and Bernadette Vargas Sensei of Aikido of Albuquerque are great examples of Birankai teachers who show leadership on the mat, off the mat and in their community. The Vargases took center stage at the first-ever Birankai Aikido Southwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Seminar in April – the group photo at the top of the page is from that event.

Fire Horse Aikido hosted another impressive junior instructor, Kate Savoca of Brooklyn Aikikai, earlier this year. She knocked our socks off with her crisp technique, clear instruction and dynamic energy. Check out the videos at the BiranOnline channel on Youtube.

Just this past weekend here in New Haven, we hosted Katherine Heins Sensei for three days of special training before summer camp. With her background as both Chiba Sensei’s kenshusei and a seven-year resident of Japan, Heins Sensei brings invaluable experience and true talent to Birankai. Heins Sensei’s intensive training in Japanese tea ceremony — closely linked to Zen and martial arts — comes through in her direct, uncluttered approach to technique and practice. She has also been doing some serious thinking about how to transmit Chiba Sensei’s Aikido; she focused her classes this weekend on drills to bring out difficult concepts in ukemi and weapons that benefited students and teachers of all ranks.

(To follow Heins Sensei on her upcoming tour of Asia, Russia, Europe and the U.K., check out her blog at thewanderingroosterblog.wordpress.com — and invite her to teach at your dojo!)

Below are some clips of Heins Sensei’s teaching on back falls this past weekend, breaking down the movements and recalibrating posture to prevent injury.  Below that is a clip she prepared of front-roll exercises.

Heins Sensei is on the core team of instructors at Birankai North America Summer Camp starting on Thursday –  don’t miss it!

Liese Klein

A Year Later

Mrs. Chiba and visitors at a memorial lunch at Chogenji temple in Japan.

Mrs. Chiba and visitors at a memorial lunch at Chogenji temple in Japan.

Dojos around the world held memorial events for Chiba Sensei this weekend as Mrs. Chiba, family members and students marked the date of his passing at Chogenji temple.

North County Aikikai’s message said it all:
“Today we held a brief memorial for Chiba Sensei. We chanted the Heart Sutra and burned incense in his memory. To this, we added our sweat and honest practice.”

Below are a few photos posted from events worldwide.

Memorial practice at Athens Aikido in Greece with Jenny Flower and Diane Deskin.

Memorial practice at Athens Aikido in Greece with Jenny Flower and Diane Deskin.

Outdoor training at Aikido Takayama in Mission, B.C.

Outdoor training at Aikido Takayama in Mission, B.C.

Memorial kamiza at North County Aikikai in Solana Beach, California.

Memorial kamiza at North County Aikikai in Solana Beach, California.

Chiba Sensei's grave in Kannami, Japan.

Chiba Sensei’s grave in Kannami, Japan.